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Until his death in 1971, the British educational psychologist Sir Cyril Burt was viewed as one of the most significant and influential educational psychologists of his time. Within a year of his death, however, the legitimacy of his research was being questioned. The questions began to turn into accusations, and by 1976 he was officially accused of fabricating data to prove that intelligence was inherited. The publication of Burt’s official biography by Leslie Hearnshaw in 1979 seemed to seal Burt’s fate by concluding that the charges of fraud were merited. However, the recent work of two independent researchers, Robert Joynson and Ronald Fletcher, has reopened the issue and raised doubts about the accusations of fraud.
The first formal, public accusation of fraud against Cyril Burt came in 1976 from Dr. Oliver Gillie, the medical correspondent to the London Sunday Times. Gillie became suspicious of Burt’s work after he read Kamin’s The Science and Politics of IQ, and began to investigate. He set out to find two of Burt’s research assistants: Miss Margaret Howard and Miss Jane Conway. Despite a thorough search, he was unable to locate either, and concluded that they were fictitious names. This fact, in conjunction with other findings, led Gillie to conclude that Burt had falsified his data. The article which appeared on the front page of the October 24, 1976 edition of the Times began with these lines
“The most sensational charge of scientific fraud this century is being leveled against Sir Cyril Burt. Leading scientists are convinced that Burt published false data and invented crucial facts to support his controversial theory that intelligence is largely inherited.” (Gillie, 1976)
Other critics later pointed out that it was unlikely that Burt had been able to find so many sets of monozygotic twins reared apart. His 1966 study involving 53 sets of twins was the largest twin study of the time. In 1955, Burt himself commented that it was unusual to find even 21 sets of subjects. Yet only eleven years later he had more than doubled his number of subjects, claiming that society held misconceptions about the frequency with which twins were reared in separate environments. Tucker (1997) examined the numbers of research subjects used in all of the twin studies conducted between 1922 and 1990 and found that no other study came close to having 53 sets of twins that would have satisfied Burt’s conditions. The combination of all the twins in all the studies (who fit Burt’s criteria) would barely sum to be 53!
It did not take long after the official accusation was made by Gillie in the London Sunday Times for supporters of Burt to come forward. Among the first was H.J. Eysenck, who attacked Gillie’s arguments and contended that the evidence provided thus far warranted a charge no stronger than carelessness. Several other supporters came forward, the most effective of whom was a former student of Burt’s by the name of J. Cohen. Cohen addressed Gillie’s claim that the two research assistants, Miss Howard and Miss Conway, did not exist. Cohen claimed that he remembered Miss Conway.
In the middle of this controversy, Leslie Hearnshaw began writing Burt’s official biography. Hearnshaw had great respect for Burt–He had even delivered an address at his memorial service. Hearnshaw was outraged at the accusations, and implored the academic community to delay judgment until he had finished the biography. Hearnshaw did not doubt about Burt’s integrity, and intended to clear his name with the book. As Hearnshaw examined Burt’s private records, distressing evidence became to accumulate and he was forced to report that the accusations were most likely true.
The conclusions reached by Hearnshaw had a great impact on the academic community, but this was not the end of the debate. In the years since Hearnshaw published Burt’s biography, other researchers have investigated the issue and have come out in support of Burt. Two such men are Robert Joynson and Ronald Fletcher. These researchers argue that Burt did not invent any of his twin data. They explain the large increase in the number of subjects by asserting that some of Burt’s data had been lost during World War II. After Burt found it, it had taken him a long time to sort it out. They also believe that the research assistants were indeed real people, although it is doubtful that they actually used their real names. Joynson and Fletcher claim that Burt used pseudonyms when publishing, and contend that such behavior, while eccentric, does not constitute a moral or ethical violation.
Hearnshaw, L. (1979). Cyril Burt: Psychologist. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Joynson, R. B. (1989). The Burt affair. New York: Routledge.
Kamin, L.J. (1974). The science and politics of IQ. Potomac, MD: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Mackintosh, N. J. (1995). Cyril Burt: Fraud or framed? New York: Oxford University Press.
Tucker, W. H. (1997). Re-reconsidering Burt: Beyond a reasonable doubt. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 33(2) 145-162.